Developer accused of ‘virtually blackmailing’ council over blunder which cost authority £2.6m
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Councillors said they were ‘not reassured’ by a report into the costly mistakes.A report has identified how ‘confusion’ between council officers combined with missing records relating to the sale led to the ‘blunder’.
An inquiry was launched earlier this year after senior councillors agreed to release funds to prevent a high school, a leisure centre and a swimming pool from closing.
It came after Orion Homes bought land next to Featherstone Sports Complex and Featherstone Academy from the local authority to build houses.
During construction work, tanks and a drainage area which serve the leisure centre and swimming pool were discovered underground.
A full survey revealed that the site also contained gas and water mains pipes.
The company then informed the council that they intended to remove them.
The council spent more than £500,000 on a “temporary drainage solution” before agreeing to give Orion £1.2m to carry out “rectification works”.
The costs are to be funded by borrowing, with estimated interest charges of £57,000 a year.
Over 25 years, the total additional costs to the council is expected to be around £2.6m.
The council called in leading legal firm Bevan Brittan to carry out an external investigation.
Members of the council’s audit and governance committee criticised those involved in handling the land transfer as they considered the report into the incident.
The ‘lessons learned’ document highlights confusion between senior council officers and staff from consultants Arcadis around the time the sale.
Nigel Brook, a co-opted committee member, said : “I wonder whether we can be sure that other properties to be sold, or are currently being made available for disposal, will also have this problem.
“I’m not reassured that the team are on top of things sufficiently to avoid similar cases.
“Given how expensive these kinds of things can be, I’m slightly less interested in this how particular case happened and more interested in how we prevent it in the future.
“I don’t see anything in this that will assure me that it won’t happen again.”
The author of the report said there was a “notable lack of clarity as to who would give what instructions” in relation to the disposal of the site.
Gillian Marshall, the council’s chief legal officer, told the meeting: “What this report indicates is that the outlook was that Arcadis thought the council were going to do it and the council thought it was Arcadis’ role to do it.”
She added: “It’s a perfect storm I suppose.”
Ms Marshall said a further report would be put to the committee in January giving assurances over any future sale of council assets.
Labour councillor Clive Tennant referred to the discovery of the gas main on the site, saying “That could have been catastrophic.”
Tory councillor Tony Hames said he was “flabbergasted” by claims that crucial documents had been lost.
He said: “Everybody said that no records were available. How come I found records?”
“I think the situation is that there are records and they are still there, and that they can still be found, and the right of drainage is well established.”
Coun Hames added: “I think that what we should be doing is seeking to get this two million quid back from Orion.
“They are virtually blackmailing Wakefield (Council) into paying for this drainage work.”
Ms Marshall said there was a drainage tank on the site which the council should have retained the rights for.
She said: “That was an error on the part of the council. There is no point in dressing things up.
The officer continued: “We came to the conclusion that Orion had every right under the land transfer, and everything else, to do what it did and say ‘we are moving that infrastructure’.
“We initially paid to keep it under there and then paid to have it moved.”
Coun Hames also called for internal investigation to be carried out.
He said: “This has not been done professionally. We are looking at gross incompetence here.
“That’s the only way you are going to ensure that it never happens again.
“It is so basic. My point is, to just throw two million quid just so Orion can make more profit and build more houses is wrong. Because it is ratepayers’ money.”
Committee chair Jacquie Speight said: “It wasn’t just to enable them to make a profit.
“It was to make sure the council could continue to provide those services.
“No one is trying to downsize the scale of this mistake, because obviously it is a very serious one.
“I’m not sure I see the benefit of having an internal investigation when we have already asked for it to be done externally.
“That is more independent and the council can’t be accused of fudging things.”